Just as many men are asking themselves how to “be” in the conversation about gender equity, as a white woman, I have been asking myself how I can “be” in the topic of racial equity in leadership.
As a girl raised by a single father, I was different. Being super tall at a young age meant I didn’t always fit into my clothing and I towered over the boys. Add to the mix red hair, fair skin, and glasses, and what I felt for most of my formative years was simply this: different. I have known what it feels like to be excluded, to not belong.
Growing up, I also had Misu and Sabrina and Rick—all friends who were just that. My friends. Fellow humans. I loved Misu’s laugh. I loved Sabrina’s smile and zest, and Rick’s vivacious personality. Yet they, I am sure, have experienced exclusion beyond what I can imagine, and only because of the color of their skin.
Over the years, I observed how “othering” can adversely affect people like Sabrina, Misu, and Rick, and along the way, I picked up tools for treating people inclusively. Today, as the director of the Institute for Inclusive Leadership at Simmons University in Boston, I think all the time about how we can build more inclusive environments. By reaching back to my childhood experiences, I realized that some of the lessons I learned then are applicable in the workplace today.
It sounds simple, but I keep coming back to the actions of those who saw me, celebrated me, and sponsored me:
· They were humble. They didn’t act like they were my savior or that they were better than me.
· They were kind. They made eye contact and greeted me with a genuine and warm smile.
· They were interested. They were curious, assuming every situation is more complicated than any one person can see.
· They were a sponsor and upstander. They had my back in positive ways, using their voice to bring attention to mine, and they spoke up for me and others who might not get a fair shake for no other reason than gender.
These, I think, are universal truisms that can be applied to gender, race, sexual orientation, or any form of “differences.”
Through my work and my life experiences, I have come to understand what it means to be an “ally,” and how that can be a pivotal role in an organization. My standing in society as a white woman gives me the ability—and I would argue the duty—to speak up in support of women of color.
On my journey of navigating differences and my commitment to equity and inclusion in leadership, there are two things I know for sure: (1) blaming and shaming those who exclude are counterproductive, as they don’t lead to more inclusive behavior or interest in being an agent of change for equity; (2) if you are not being consciously inclusive, you are likely being unconsciously exclusive.
The best contribution I can make to close the equity gap for women of color is to listen more intently to what my sisters of color are telling me. In the meantime, I will do my best to:
Be a sponsor and upstander
And with these actions, I hope I inspire others to do the same. DW
Susan MacKenty Brady is the managing director of the Institute for Inclusive Leadership at Simmons University, and the author of Mastering Your Inner Critic & Seven Other High Hurdles to Advancement: How the Best Women Leaders Practice Self-Awareness to Change What Really Matters.